I need to give you some background for this article. Don’t worry if it looks like I’m wandering, I’m only setting the stage. I’ll be getting to the point in a minute or two.
I follow a blog—Bionic Mosquito. You can see it here. It’s a mix of hard-core philosophy, libertarianism, Christianity, and the never-ending quest for truth. Sometimes the author, Bionic Mosquito (or BM, as he is known), gets into subject matter which I am not interested in and I skim through it and move on. Other times, he presents a topic to which I go back, over and over, until I have it thoroughly understood. Occasionally I comment.
Recently, a post on ethical absolutism appeared which drew my attention. In this, Bionic Mosquito posted some comments by Murray Rothbard, the demi-god[i] of libertarianism. Rothbard was apparently in disagreement with Ludwig von Mises, who was instrumental in the creation of Austrian economics, about the question of ethics. Is ethics absolute or relative? Is there an objective truth or is all truth subjective?
Rothbard had this to say.
“The absolutist believes that man’s mind, employing reason (which according to some absolutists is divinely inspired, according to others is given by nature), is capable of discovering and knowing truth: including the truth about reality, and the truth about what is best for man and best for himself as an individual.”
I have included here a quote from Bionic Mosquito’s post. He makes an argument that I cannot improve on.
“I could probably stop here; from this statement, two points are clear: first, that there is an objective truth regarding humans and for humans, and second, that it is to be discovered by humans, not created by humans. But I won’t stop here; his statements grow ever stronger and more relevant.”
Back to Rothbard.
“Philosophically, I believe that libertarianism — and the wider creed of sound individualism of which libertarianism is a part — must rest on absolutism and deny relativism.”
All right, then, so far, so good. Rothbard (and Bionic Mosquito) states that there is an objective truth that man can find if he searches for it. That truth is best for man as an individual and as a society. Furthermore, it does not come from man, but it is available to man. He (Rothbard) then states without any doubt or equivocation that libertarianism “must rest on absolutism and deny relativism.”
OK, let’s get to my argument.
If Rothbard could be so certain that there was absolute truth, an absolute ethic, an absolute moral code that he would bank his life’s work on it, then why in the world would he spend so much time and effort trying to justify abortion as a woman’s right? Why would he pursue the idea of ‘property rights’ so vigorously that he arrived at the conclusion that a woman’s subjective decision could override the objective truth about the unborn child in her womb?
“The proper groundwork for analysis of abortion is in every man’s absolute right of self-ownership. This implies immediately that every woman has the absolute right to her own body, that she has absolute dominion over her body and everything within it. This includes the fetus. Most fetuses are in the mother’s womb because the mother consents to this situation, but the fetus is there by the mother’s freely-granted consent. But should the mother decide that she does not want the fetus there any longer, then the fetus becomes a parasitic “invader” of her person, and the mother has the perfect right to expel this invader from her domain. Abortion should be looked upon, not as “murder” of a living person, but as the expulsion of an unwanted invader from the mother’s body.2 Any laws restricting or pro- hibiting abortion are therefore invasions of the rights of mothers.”[ii]
Rothbard says that there is an absolute ethic, an objective moral code which all men and women would be better off following, but spends a large part of his life on the issue of property rights—compelling him to declare that women have absolute ownership of their bodies and the concomitant right to destroy their unborn children.
If there is an absolute, objective moral code which declares that all human beings have value and that to kill one is to commit murder, then it is certain that killing an unborn child is murder, because it is without doubt a human being. If this is true, then Rothbard is wrong. It is my opinion that he became so caught up in the theory of property rights that it simply transcended his viewpoint about absolute ethics. In other words, he lost sight of the forest looking at the trees.
The question to ask then is this. Is there an absolute code which declares that unborn children are human beings, that they have value in the sight of that code, and that it is wrong to treat them as so many are today—torn apart and thrown away? I have no better answer than this quote from the Ultimate Definer of absolute morality, ethics, and truth.
“Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart; …”—Jeremiah 1:5
[i] Within the circles of libertarian thought, Rothbard is viewed with the same type of reverence and awe that Hercules was in ancient Greek Mythology.
[ii] Murray Rothbard, The Ethics of Liberty, New York University Press, 1998 , pg. 98. See this review.
3 thoughts on “Absolute Truth, Property Rights, and Abortion: A Collision”
Good points and I think abortion is one of Rothbard’s weakest points overall. Have you heard the Lions of Liberty discussion on abortion? Walter Block, that more or less took over the mantle from Rothbard (in my opinion) refines some of the points he made in that podcast discussion. I wasn’t completely convinced, but its a good listen if you got the time:
Thanks for the comment, Alex. No, I haven’t heard the Lions of Liberty podcast, but might listen sometime down the road. I do a fair amount of writing concerning Walter Block and typically find myself on the opposite side of the fence on this issue. Glad to have you aboard.
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The episode I linked is a great discussion on the topic of abortion, giving 3 different libertarian views on the topic. It gave me a lot to mull over =)
Yeah, I’m on the fence on Walter Block – I like his economic work, but his social work is not up to par (in my opinion of course).